Wilbon Q/A: NBA Countdown isn’t trying to compete with Barkley, TNT; speaks on changes, Simmons, Magic

First of three parts:

It isn’t easy to pin down Michael Wilbon these days. It’s not that he doesn’t want to talk. The notion of silence doesn’t exist for him.

Rather, Wilbon is a constant man in motion this time of year. His regular gigs on NBA Countdown and Pardon the Interruption should be enough to fill his plate. Wilbon, though, still loves to write, which is why he was in Chicago to write a column off Sunday’s Bears-Houston game for ESPNChicago.com.

“It’s crazy, man,” he said.

After many texts, I finally connected with Wilbon Monday. And sure enough, he had plenty to say. Enough for a three-parter.

We discussed the state of sports writing in the wake of him editing and selecting the stories for Best American Sports Writing 2012; and why he feels the need to continue to cover games and write.

The first part of my interview with Wilbon will focus on the changes for NBA Countdown. Out are Chris Broussard and Jon Barry. In are Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose. Wilbon and Magic Johnson remain the constants in a studio show that exists in the same stratosphere as the Charles Barkley fest on the NBA on TNT.

How did you feel about the changes?

For the first time in my life, I understand what happens in the lockerroom when a guy gets traded. Jon wasn’t just a co-worker. He was one of my closest friends. It was every day for five years. It put me in a funk. There was an emotional component I hadn’t been forced to look at before.

Yet having said that, I love the guys coming in, Jalen and Bill. Bill knows so much about basketball. Jalen is terrific. We’ll have four guys with different points of view. We should be able to do some smart talk about basketball.

What about the inevitable comparisons to Barkley and TNT?

We’re not TNT. There’s only one Charles Barkley. I’ve said that Charles is the most important voice in the post-John Madden era. People compare. That’s fine, that’s natural. I love Charles and (Kenny Smith). I guess they’re still trying to figure out how to get Shaq involved. I love watching them. But we don’t compete with them. We shouldn’t try to do the same thing. We should do a different show than the one they’re doing.

Simmons is the wildcard. He didn’t play, and never covered the game the way you did. How will his addition make the show different?

He will be easy to tweak. Some of my job will be to start some fights and be an instigator with Bill. Bill’s personality allows for that, and it will make for better discussion.

One of the producers said, ‘Bring some PTI to this show.’ It wasn’t the case before for this show. Maybe it will be for this one.

What is it like to work with Magic?

I always say, ‘I get to watch basketball with Magic Johnson.’ I know so much more about basketball than I did five years ago. When you’re watching Magic watch Steve Nash, that’s like basketball nirvana. He said LeBron James needed a post game. What does LeBron do? He gets a post game. If you can’t listen to Magic and not learn something, then turn it off.

As a player, Magic was flamboyant, but as an analyst he goes back to his Midwestern roots. It’s just that he’s straightforward. People compare him to Charles. They say he doesn’t do this or that. Hey, they’re different people. Magic just has to be Magic.

What’s your assessment of the new show thus far?

We’ll be fine, but it’s going to take repetition. It’s like the coaches say about getting the reps. The other day, my wife asked how the show went. I said, ‘We were better at 11 than we were at 7.’ I’d expect we’ll be better on Christmas Day than we are today.

Wednesday: Wilbon says the new media age has resulted in a lower quality in sports writing.










Simmons, Rose part of revamped ESPN NBA Countdown

Bill Simmons’ dream continues to get better. The NBA junkie now will be talking hoops with Magic Johnson as part of ESPN’s revamped NBA Countdown.

In are Simmons and Jalen Rose. Out are Jon Barry and Chris Broussard. Remaining are Johnson and Michael Wilbon.

ESPN felt like the show needed some tweaks. Simmons, who has his hands on pretty much everything at ESPN, obviously is seen as an upgrade with his unique perspective.

Thanks to the magic of video, here are Simmons and Rose talking about being “teammates.”

For those who prefer reading, here are some quotes:

“I think the four of us will be able to have good conversations,” Simmons said. “We’re all going to say what we’re thinking. I’m better playing off other people and I think Jalen is the same way and I know Magic is the same way — all four of us can do that. At the same time we want the show to have a level of sophistication.”

Mark Gross, ESPN senior vice-president and executive producer for content said:

“The unique, diverse perspectives of our new commentator team fit perfectly with the show’s free-flowing format. Bill brings a deep knowledge of the league past and present, an entertaining style and an ability to articulate his inventive thoughts from a fan’s point of view. Jalen’s lengthy playing experience and his strong, informed opinions will give fans great insight into how and why things happen on the court. They join a team that includes one of the greatest players of all time and one of our most versatile and engaging commentators.”


Dream Team Book Q/A: Best show ever in basketball; landing an interview with elusive Jordan

Jack McCallum was witness to one of the greatest miracles in sports: He saw me make a birdie on the par 3 12th hole at Augusta National. I dropped a six-iron to within four feet and actually made the putt. Not bad for a 15-handicapper who was playing like a 30 prior to that hole.

“Pretty good shot,” said McCallum, recalling our round the day after Jose Maria Olazabal’s victory in the 1999 Masters.

While it was the highlight of my pitiful sporting career (note: this is my blog and I will try to tell that tale as often as possible), McCallum has seen much greater feats of athletic prowess. Perhaps none were greater than the collective talents of the original “Dream Team.”

Twenty years later, the long-time Sports Illustrated writer is out this week with what should be the hottest sports book of the summer: Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry and Charles and the greatest team of all time conquered the world and changed the game of basketball forever.

It seems like every sports book these days has the “changed the game forever” kicker. Publishers must think it adds some gravitas to entice sales.

Often the label isn’t deserved, but not in this case. The Dream Team did change basketball, and sports for that matter.

It was an unprecedented, and never duplicated, array of transcendent superstars playing for the same team; 11 of the 12 players are in the Hall of Fame. The Dreamers featured Michael Jordan, fresh off a second NBA championship with the Bulls, trying to grab the torch away from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, two aging stars who saved the NBA in the 80s.

McCallum writes, “It couldn’t have been scripted any better, and when the Dreamers finally released all that star power into a collective effort, the show was better than everyone thought it would be…and everyone had thought it would be pretty damn good.”

McCallum, who covered the team from beginning to end, brings his A-game in telling the many stories and taking readers behind the scenes. He includes personal moments of covering the team, including the time he and fellow David Dupree asked to get a picture taken with the team.

McCallum writes that the moment was incredibly awkward, leaving him open to some good-natured verbal abuse from Bird. “Hey Jack,” drawled Bird, “later on, you wanna blow us?”

On that note, here’s my Q/A with Jack:

There’s no talk about this year’s U.S. Olympic team. What made that team so special in 1992?

It’s a cliche, but it was the perfect storm. There was the first time news angle. Then there was the fact that the international stage was set for them. All of sudden at a time (when overseas fans) were experiencing the NBA as an appetizer, here comes the whole entree in the form of the greatest team ever.

I think it was the only time in the sporting culture where NBA players were the biggest stars. LeBron James is huge, but I don’t think, fair or not, he has the same positive impact across the culture like they did back then.

Those guys truly were rock stars. What was it like to travel with them?

I had seen a mini-version of it with Jordan. The best way to describe it is when they got to Barcelona, there was thousands of people surrounding the hotel. I thought, OK, maybe it will be like this for a day or two. On day 17, they were still there. To this day, I still have a hard time trying to figure it out.

In the book, you revisited many of the players and did portraits of their lives today. Why did you take that route?

As you know, access sucks at the Olympics. I was not inside the bubble. I needed to talk to the players to get information on what occurred during the Olympics.

I also wanted to see what they’re doing now. I wasn’t looking to do a Boys of Summer. These are famous guys even in retirement. But I still knew I could find out something else about them. For instance,  to see David Robinson run his school in San Antonio, that puts him in perspective.

Michael Jordan doesn’t do many interviews these days. How difficult was it to get him?

It was difficult. He’s at war with Sports Illustrated (for mocking his attempt at baseball), although that didn’t have anything to do with me. I made it clear this was not a SI project. Finally, I got, ‘Michael Jordan will see you. But it only will be for 15 minutes and you must keep your questions to the Dream Team.’

I knew I was OK. He’s not Charles Barkley, but he’s pretty honest. Michael is an incredible bullshitter and I knew he’d talk about anything. I also knew it wouldn’t be for 15 minutes. The key was getting in the room. It was a great interview. Afterward, I had a sense of relief wash over me. I got him.

Talk about Jordan’s teammate, Scottie Pippen.

He surprised me. Pippen always got the shortshrift. Every time, I came to Chicago, I’d wind up writing Jordan. One time I came in to write Horace Grant and still wound up writing Jordan.

I found a guy in Pippen who you could clearly see how this experience meant so much to him. He couldn’t believe it when he got invited. The way it validated his career was interesting. Chris Mullin said the same thing. Karl Malone, in his own way, did too. It was interesting to me to see how much these guys needed that validation.

What is the legacy of the Dream Team?

All the players wanted to make the point that there was only one Dream Team. Don’t get into this BS about a Dream Team II. As accomplished as they were individually, they all knew they were on the one team that was different. They knew not only how meaningful it was to them, but also across the entire history of basketball.












Get ready for return of Dream Team; NBA TV documentary debuts tonight

Given our love for anniversaries with round numbers, the 20-year mark for the legendary 1992 Olympics powerhouse will be front and center this summer. It begins with an NBA TV documentary simply titled, The Dream Team. It debuts Wednesday at 9 p.m. (ET) and will be replayed about a million times.

Then coming in July, Jack McCallum, who covered that bunch for Sports Illustrated, will be out with a new book, Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever.

Quite a mouthful, Jack.

Both the documentary and the book are excellent. I’m planning an interview with Jack soon.

Then again, how could they miss given the subjects?

It was an unprecedented, and never duplicated, array of transcendent superstars playing for the same team; 11 of the 12 players are in the Hall of Fame. The Dreamers featured Michael Jordan, fresh off a second NBA championship with the Bulls, trying to grab the torch away from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, two aging stars who saved the NBA in the 80s.

The documentary details the over-the-top rock star adoration that greeted the team at every stop. And for contrast, there’s great footage of John Stockton, the short white guard, going unrecognized as he walked through the streets of Barcelona with his family.

Indeed, the best part of the documentary is the behind-the-scenes accounts of the team. It includes never-before-seen footage of an intense scrimmage in Monte Carlo in which respective team captains Jordan and Johnson played as if it was the Chicago Stadium for the NBA Finals.

There’s much more. You come away from the documentary feeling the same way as the players. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone.

Said Jordan: “What we did will go down in history as one of the biggest, biggest things that ever happened. And it won’t ever be duplicated.”




Who needs a host? ESPN exec explains why hostless NBA Countdown works

What ESPN did with its NBA Countdown show this year might not be good news for James Brown, Curt Menefee, Chris Berman, Chris Fowler, and countless other hosts of studio shows.

ESPN has proved that a studio show can be done without a quote-unquote host.

In one of the more unique experiments in recent years, ESPN decided to go without a studio host for its NBA studio show. In previous years, the network had employed Hannah Storm and Stuart Scott to direct the traffic.

This year, ESPN simply put Magic Johnson, Michael Wilbon, Chris Broussard, and Jon Barry at a table and let them talk. Wilbon does most of the nuts and bolts stuff when it comes to opening the segments. But unlike a regular host, his main purpose is to be an analyst, offering his opinions in the discussion.

ESPN’s version is a contrast to TNT’s Inside the NBA, where host Ernie Johnson has to steer through the goofiness often generated by Charles Barkley. ESPN’s NBA Countdown is far less yuks and more hardcore basketball.

Mark Gross, ESPN senior VP and executive producer , is more than pleased with the new format. I asked him about the show in a Q/A.

Why did ESPN decide to go without a host?

We thought let’s just try something different. We thought if we could get the right guys together, we wouldn’t need a host. We believe they could carry it on their own.

This place is built on a risk. It shouldn’t be that difficult for us to take a risk on a pre-game show. It doesn’t have to look like every other show that’s out there. If you get the right four guys, it can work.

Why is it working with these guys?

It works because they all get along. Two, they’re big basketball fans. Three, they all have something to say. Magic is great. He’s exactly who you think he is. He’s even a better person.

What about the comparisons to TNT’s show?

We don’t have Charles Barkley. We’re not getting him. Everyone understands that. That’s OK. We’re happy with the show we have. I’ve never seen anything positive written about our show since we’ve gotten the NBA until this year. We’re pleased with how it’s turned out.

Does this mean hosts are going to be passe on ESPN’s studio shows?

No. There are a lot of shows where you want a host. You want to ask a specific question. You want Chris Fowler to host College Gameday. In that show, you need someone to get you from point A to point B to point C. It’s a two-hour show.

NBA Countdown is different. What we’ve done works for this show.